It’s no secret the Upper Arkansas River Valley (Leadville, Buena Vista, and Salida) is developing at a rapid pace. Take one look at last year’s Outside Magazine article ‘The Best Unsung Mountain Town’ and you’ll understand why. For many local businesses and entrepreneurs, it’s become a great opportunity to capitalize on the influx of summer tourism, 2nd home owners, and those with disposable income. But to others, mostly those that have been here the longest, the growth in popularity has felt like an invasion. And this has left many with the decision to fight or take flight.
Time to “out” myself.
I’m one of these transplants–only a year and a half in the valley spending the majority of my life in Chicago as a high school science teacher. I found the valley like so many have, via the river, the hiking, and a summer leadership camp experience as a counselor (based in Villa Grove, Colorado). I’m also a Main Street business owner in Buena Vista, and the owner of a ranch just north of town.
I see the excitement. I see the opportunity. I see the anger. And, I see the struggle. This post and those to follow with the same headline are about farming, agriculture land, Chaffee County growth and development, and what I’ve learned in the short time we’ve been in the valley.
Let it be clear. I am not speaking directly for other farmers or ranchers in the valley. If you want to know what they think or feel, please go ask them. Every rancher I know will happily give you their angle in no less than 90 minutes while they Jedi mind trick you into “giving them a hand”. I can’t wait til I have those powers! And I can’t wait til I have those years of experience and knowledge under my suspenders.
But for now, the most important collection of data, information and opinions I will reference is from the Envision Chaffee County initiative. Envision Chaffee County is a community-based initiative to identify what residents value the most, and to create a plan to maintain those aspects and features as the county grows and prospers. After countless surveys and numerous focus groups, the below statements were identified as the top concerns and goals of the 1,100 citizens in the county that chose to get involved in the process.
In 2030 and beyond Chaffee County will have …
- Healthy forests, waters and wildlife maintained in balance with outdoor recreation.
- A sustainable agricultural community and open rural landscapes with growth concentrated in and around towns.
- Community members able to live locally and benefit from an increasingly diversified economy.
- A friendly, supportive community where participation is encouraged and shared cultural elements connect us.
As the owner of a Main Street business and a property owner of agricultural land in the county, I have chosen to focus my volunteer time with Envision Chaffee County on vision statement #2.
And, if any of these statements above excite you, come join us! Get involved. Follow us on Facebook. Your opinion matters. But what matters even more than your opinion is your action. It makes me sad to see so much hate and polarized perspective on the What’s happening in Buena Vista Facebook page. I’m sick of the fingers being pointed, especially at one man. There’s real data out there that paints a bigger picture–that points to something more than a music festival, or one development that’s to blame for the “unwanted” growth in the valley. It’s all been happening for decades. My hope is that this post help you understand that data. And, in doing so, helps you understand your emotions and whether or not (1) they are warranted, (2) directed at the right target, and (3) productive.
A Farmer’s Dilemma #1
Two weeks ago at an Envision Chaffee County meeting, I sat with over forty local farmers, ranchers, and conservationists. The top two questions that came out of our four hour session:
Q1: How do we make agricultural lands profitable while still primarily using the land for agricultural purposes?
Q2: How can we encourage development within city limits so that we don’t continue to lose our rural agriculture land?
And, in prior Envision listening sessions, local ranchers identified multiple challenges to keeping their lands in production, including: conflicts with growing population; restrictions limiting ability to develop new revenue streams; water rights protections; and workforce limitations.
The struggle is real my friends. And, the feeling in the room amongst the rancher folk was that there’s quite a bit of disconnect in Chaffee County between the agriculture community and those that actively support it (by purchasing product, being supportive neighbors, and advocating for good rural policy), and those that “love the views” but “can’t justify the cost of buying that when it’s half the price at City Market or down in the San Louis Valley”. I’m here to say those well preserved beautiful views full of agriculture lands up and down highway 24 do come at quite the expense.
Figuring out how the revenues outmatch the expenses all the while preserving the beautiful views, open space, and character of our county seems to be the ultimate want for all parties concerned.
To figure all this out is going to take time, understanding, compromise, good policy, and of course, money. But most importantly, it’s going to take a commitment from all parties who feel passionately one way or another to come together and see the bigger picture. That the only way we move forward as a community is to understand and empathize with each other.
Having had 15 years experience as a science teacher and 6 as a drop-out prevention program manager, I am a firm believer in data driven decisions. Data helps us understand the world on so many levels.
Data defers emotion. It slows reaction. It isn’t sexy. But, it does help us (1) understand and come to terms with reality and then, (2) set measurable goals for the future.
The below data has been collected and aggregated by the Envision Chaffee County team in an attempt to understand the trends and patterns occurring through the county over the past couple decades.
See if the data, also know as facts, confirms or denies your instincts.
-An estimated 60% of Chaffee County’s private lands are classified as working agriculture (according to USDA data). Based on the Envision Chaffee Survey, taken by over 1100 community members, 97% of citizens said working lands contribute to Chaffee County’s quality of life. According to survey respondents, these lands (in order of importance):
- Provide open space and views
- Are part of our community and culture
- Keep water rights local
- Provide wildlife habitat
- Provide local foods and
- Contribute to jobs and our economy
-96% of those surveyed indicate it is important or very important to support working lands and to maintain open space as the county grows.
-County-level USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service Survey Data indicate the acres of land in agricultural production in Chaffee County have decreased 30% since 1982. This represents 33,000 acres or 26% of all private lands.
-One hundred and sixty subdivisions have been created in Chaffee County since 1999, involving 9,570 acres (8% of all private lands).
-Currently, 51% of the population lives in the unincorporated county. Chaffee County’s population grew 7%, or 1,300 people, from 2010 to 2016. The majority of new population growth (47%) occurred in the unincorporated county, according to the State Demographer.
-The median sale price of single family homes in Chaffee County increased 65% from 2011 to 2017 (from roughly $210,000 to $345,000), according to Colorado Association of Realtors data.
-The number of vacation rental by owner (VRBO) units in Chaffee County increased 103% from January 2015 to January 2018, from 151 to 307, according to information provided by the Chaffee County Assessor’s Office
-The State Demographer provides a forecast of future job growth. The forecasts indicate potential for rapid growth in jobs that are “location-neutral, where people live in Chaffee County and “commute” digitally to jobs that are located elsewhere.
To summarize. . .
- People love open space land, both public and private, and want it to remain undeveloped.
- Farmers have been selling off land at noticeable levels since the 80’s–be it death, failing business models, or other interests.
- County land is subdivided and upscale homes take over because the building code is less restrictive in the county. 2+ acre lots with distant neighbors is highly desirable.
- As telecommuting becomes more popular, more city dwellers have escaped to the mountains full time.
- Real estate prices are at an all time high as more and more money moves from the big cities to our small mountain town.
- Second homes and short term rentals (VRBO’s and AirBNB’s) have taken over the market creating an affordable housing crisis for workforce employees making minimum wage.
Did you see what I just did there? My summary sounds pretty good, right? Sounds like it could all be fact. But really, I took all the facts and data from Envision and drew my own conclusions–made my own assumptions. In fact, my summary is not fact. There may be some truth to it. But really, I’m not sure. I’m really not qualified to draw those conclusions. That’s what researchers are for! And, that’s what city and town planners are for. They are the ones who know the history and interpret the data.
And this is why the Envision process is so important! Without professionals, what starts as a fact can quickly be “telephoned” into something different. And, the next thing you know, you’re spreading information you heard third hand from someone you’ve never actually met about something you know nothing about. It’s easy to do. And tempting. Small town gossip is fierce, destructive, and divisive–especially the virtual kind.
We live in a world where big decisions aren’t made on gut and instinct anymore. And, for good reason, the squeaky wheel is getting less grease these days. If you want answers and solutions to global questions involving many parties, you’ve gotta be willing to commit to a process–often long term. You’ve got to be willing to get involved. If not, other people are going to be making the decisions for you and you’ll be left feeling under appreciated, bitter, and angry towards your community.
Here’s the even sadder thing. You may actually feel all of these emotions even if you get involved in the process. But, at least you can say you fought the good fight, put faces to names, and most likely met some like minded locals who feel the same way you do. And, you’ll be ready for the next round.
This place is worth fighting for.
P.S. If you were reading this hoping to find the answers to A Farmer’s Dilemma #1, we’re still a ways out from cracking the code.